• Otávio Santiago

Can we hack DNA in plants to help fight climate change?

To prevent dangerous levels of global warming, scientists say it won’t be enough to just stop burning fossil fuels that release carbon into the air. Because it’s virtually impossible for humanity to do that as fast as is now required, we will also need to pull carbon out of the air and secure it.

Plants are among the best tools we have to do this, since these living solar collectors already capture billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. About half of that carbon winds up in roots and eventually the soil, where it can stay for hundreds to thousands of years.

But what if we could create plants and soils that are even better at capturing carbon? With CRISPR genome editing—a revolutionary new molecular biology toolset that allows scientists to make rapid and precise edits to the DNA code that underpins all life—that might be possible.

Last month, the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), a San Francisco Bay area research consortium founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, began to explore the idea in earnest. With an $11-million gift from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a team of plant geneticists, soil scientists, and microbial ecologists embarked on a three-year effort using CRISPR to create new crop varieties that photosynthesize more efficiently and funnel more carbon into the soil. Eventually, the researchers hope to create gene-edited rice and sorghum seeds that could—if planted around the globe—pull more than a billion extra tons of carbon out of the air annually.

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